Sunday, October 27, 2019

Race and Gender in American Buddhism

Recently, I had the great honor and privilege of participating in The Gathering II: Buddhist Sangha of Black African Descent. 

The event was a week-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where Black Buddhist teachers, scholars, and guests from various traditions practiced together and discussed the intersections of Race, Gender, and Buddhist practice.

Admittedly, I was a bit starstruck from being in the presence of so many senior teachers, and I did my best to speak as little as possible; choosing to listen and absorb as much wisdom as I could.  The event was organized by Rev. Angel Kyodo WilliamsBishop Myokei Caine-BarretNoliwei Alexander, and Konda Mason.

I know from experience that organizing a half-day retreat can be a nightmare, so I can't imagine how much time and energy went into organizing a week-long event that culminated in 300 black Buddhists attending talks, workshops, and panel discussions on the Spirit Rock campus.  The fact that everything went so smoothly is a testament to their fortitude and skill.  

I could write a book about the lessons that I learned during my time at The Gathering II.  However, there was one incident that I found to be very telling.  In my tradition, it's customary to do three full prostrations of gratitude in front of the altar at the start of practice.  Doing so reminds us that we're in a sacred space along with creating a mind of humility and compassion.

On the first day of practice, however, I was surprised to see that the altar didn't have a serene-looking Asian man sitting on it.  Instead, there was a black woman; sitting on kente cloth and surrounded by candles.  The fact that I was surprised is a problem because I know if a tree or a rock had been on that altar, I wouldn't have flinched.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that everything is Buddha.  A tree is Buddha.  A river is Buddha. Three pounds of flax is Buddha.  I've heard teachers make statements along these lines countless times.  

But I've never heard it said that women are Buddha.  No one ever mentions that Black people are Buddha.

Even as I write this, I wonder if we can sit with those last two sentences.  Can we let blackness and femininity be Buddha without racing to make statements that start with "But" and "What about"?

Outside of the super-progressive Dharma practiced in places like New York and California, it's very en vogue to claim that race and gender are illusions that have nothing to do with Buddhist practice.

But as I'm fond of telling my students, just because life is an illusion that doesn't stop it from being real.  Money is an illusion, but that doesn't stop us from paying our rent each month.  Race and gender are illusions, but that doesn't stop racism and sexism from being real. 

If we refuse to acknowledge that, then Buddhist practice is nothing more than escapism.  And our training is no more significant than playing Xbox.

If we're being honest, many of us use Buddhism in exactly that way.  We escape the hard questions in life by sweeping them under the rug of oneness.  In her book, The Way of Tenderness, Rev. Zenju Earthlyn explains the problem with this by saying:

When we try to manipulate the nature of our oneness into a flat, one-dimensional sameness, we choose to ignore the concurrent multiplicity of nature.  The sameness of being one does not erase difference. We need not make a union of sameness and difference for they are already perfect- two aspects of the single dynamic relationship that is the nature of life.  When we look out onto a garden and see curly willow trees, roses, succulents, collard greens, and plum blossoms, we are witnessing oneness. We don't have the power to create it.

Just like different plants in a garden require different forms of care, people with different embodiments (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) require different forms of practice.  In the end, a one-size-fits-all approach to Dharma fits no one.

Sadly, I don't know how to solve the koan of blending the realities of race and gender with American Buddhism.  But I believe POC sanghas like the ones found at  East Bay Meditation CenterNew York Insight, and Houston Zen Center provide some insight in this regard.

Also, I believe supporting the work of Black Buddhist teachers and scholars by attending their workshops and buying their books is a good step.  This is NOT an exhaustive list, but here are some suggestions for people who want to engage in this practice:

Another potential step is inviting Black Buddhist teachers to give Dharma talks at our centers.  My friend Dr. Shante Paradigm Smalls is currently engaging with this work at the Weekly Dharma Gathering Online, which they co-founded and curate.

Of course, these are just suggestions, and people are welcome to do with them what they wish.  But I have a strong suspicion that if we want to create sanghas were people of all races and genders feel welcome, we need to start from a place humility and compassion.

For me, that work started at The Gathering II when I prostrated before a Black, woman Buddha for the first time.

Visit my YouTube channel to hear Dharma Talks!

If you'd like to support my work, please consider making a donation.

Race and Gender in American Buddhism


  1. Thank you so much for mentioning East Bay Meditation Center in this blogpost. We're working hard on Radical Inclusivity and Shared Leadership, two of five elements in what we call "the EBMC ecosystem." The ecosystem is our organizational culture and infrastructure. We don't have all the answers (and never will), but we have wonderful questions that lead us deeper into our evolving models of inclusivity and we try to keep channels of communication open all the time to Sangha input so that everything is created by emergent strategy.

  2. I returned to the power of peace of our gathering and our Sister Mother Buddha. And I am challenged to keep asking and answering the questions you offer. This is beautiful and necessary -- such a teaching. And I am honored that my book is on the list. The best thing. Much, much love and honor.

  3. You have wonderful thoughts. Please continue writing and sharing!